Sunday, April 25, 2010

21st Century Administrator Book Review: Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

I have a number of books in my library that address change using a variety of strategies, methods, and principles. I recently purchased Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Just as these authors did in their immensely popular book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers provide some common sense methods and approaches to making change happen in the lives of individuals and in organizations.

From the opening of the first chapter, Chip and Dan Heath begin by pointing out some common sense considerations regarding change. First of all, to the person seeking change, “What often looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” In other words, energies do not always need to be focused at the people involved in a change effort. Instead, change can be made to happen more easily if one focuses efforts on the environment, or situation. To get individuals to change behaviors might be simply a matter of changing their environment so that they are no longer drawn into the behaviors we are seeking to change. Secondly, “For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” This is common sense. For change to happen, the individuals in the change situation must begin to demonstrate new behaviors and take on new habits. As Chip and Dan Heath point out, “Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way?” Thirdly, Chip and Dan Heath point out further, “For an individual’s behavior to change, you got to not only influence their environments, but their hearts and minds.” Again, this change advice is hardly new. The idea of reaching a person’s divided mind in order to make change happen is found in the writings of a number of change authors. What is new in this book is the Heath Brother’s Three-Part Framework for Changing Behavior. They have based this framework in a mind-emotion analogy used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

According to Chip and Dan Heath making change happen is complicated by the fact that our minds are divided. There is the emotional side that is instinctive and feels pain and pleasure, and there is the rational side that is the reflective conscious system that deliberates, analyzes, and looks to the future. These two sides of our minds are in conflict with each other. Using Haidt’s analogy Chip and Dan Heath call the rational side of the mind, the Rider, and the emotional side is called the Elephant. The Rider is actually perched atop the Elephant, holding the reins, and seemingly leads the Elephant. The problem is the Rider’s control is precarious because he is so small in size in relation to the Elephant. Anytime there is a disagreement, the Elephant wins due to his size advantage. Basically, a lot of change fails because the Rider can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination, or desired change. The Rider also has his problems. He tends to over-analyze and over-think problems almost to the point nothing gets done. On the other hand, the Elephant’s weakness lies in his laziness, skittishness, and his looking for instant payoff. According to the Heaths, when change fails, it is often the Elephant’s fault because his hunger for instant gratification pulls him away from the change path. Since emotion is the Elephant’s turf, he is actually the one who gets change done. He has the energy and drive to get one to the change destination. It is impossible to get there without the Elephant. If you want change to happen, you have to appeal to people’s Riders and their Elephants.

Ultimately, it is people’s Riders that provide the planning and direction. It is their Elephants that provide the energy of change. Reaching people’s Riders but not their Elephants means they will have understanding but no motivation. If you reach people’s Elephants but not their Riders, then they will have passion without direction. If people have reluctant Elephants and wheel-spinning Riders, then nothing changes. In a tug-of-war situation with people’s Elephants pulling wildly, the Rider is ultimately going to lose, because he can’t maintain control for very long. This self-control is not an inexhaustible resource. Eventually, the Rider loses control. Ultimately, changing behaviors means changing those behaviors that have become automatic which requires the careful supervision of the Rider.

Ultimately, Chip and Dan Heath provide a “Three-Part Framework for Changing Behavior” as a means to bring about individual and organizational change. This framework involves three parts: 1) Directing people’s Riders, 2) Motivating people’s Elephants, and 3) Shaping the Path. Directing the Rider involves using strategies to make sure people have a crystal-clear direction. Motivating the Elephant involves engaging people’s emotional side to get their Elephants on the path and cooperative. Shaping the path involves changing the environment so that the change you are seeking is more likely to happen. Ultimately, to change behavior, you have to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. The Heath’s book then provides specific strategies for working all three parts of this framework.

This book is quite compact, and its ideas about change are intriguing. I am still digesting all of the information found in its pages, and I will be for some time. It is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in 2010. As a 21st century administrator seeking to make change happen, I gladly place this on my reference book shelf in my office, and I will not doubt refer back to it often.

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